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June 23 2012

Art review

Baltic, Gateshead; Serpentine, London

The story is told of a Chinese peasant invited to the emperor's palace to be rewarded for his loyal service. Would he rather be paid in gold or rice? Seeing the emperor at his chessboard, the peasant chooses rice, requesting one grain for the first square, two for the second, four for the third, and so on. Laughing at the man's stupidity, the emperor agrees but is bankrupted by the 64th square as the multiplying reward now totals more than all the rice in China.

Billions of billions – how can one begin to imagine such numbers, in grains of rice or anything else? Mark Wallinger does not flinch from the task. Each work in this marvellous new show attempts to number the numberless, to make visible some unimaginably vast concept all the way from infinity to eternity: and each work makes a piercing metaphor, often humorous, out of failure.

Stretching out before the visitor to the Baltic is an immense checkerboard floor: 65,536 chessboards, to be precise, laid edge to edge. On each square of each board lies a solitary pebble. Grey, cream, the size of a pawn or perhaps a queen, each stone has some visual affinity with the chess set but each is naturally unique; and the same suddenly seems true of each square. No longer just a black or white box, each square becomes a little kingdom for the pebble it contains; and each pebble acquires its own status by the same token. Everything is made to count, separately and together.

The effect from floor level is generalised, a grey miasma stretching into the distance. But from the viewing gallery above, every square has its special graphic distinction. Mathematics is clearly central to the work – from the simple binary opposition of chessboards to the super-perfect numbers involved – but there is a beautiful order in the spectacle itself: the sheer dizzying quantity of it all held in check, piece by piece, a beach contained in a chessboard.

Just beyond, not incidentally, is the sea itself, twinkling and lapping in Wallinger's new film Construction Site, receiving its UK premiere.

Three workmen are building a scaffolding tower on the shingle, a comic proposition in itself. A pole appears from the right, followed ages later by the builder carrying it. A speedboat breezes through as if to mock this slow and Sisyphean labour. There are mishaps and forgotten buckets, and a seagull bursts into the picture just as an ideal symmetry of structure is achieved. Every moment is surprising, a series of sight gags sustained over more than an hour in a masterpiece of comic timing.

This structure looks like a gigantic drawing, or a freestanding frame. It is eventually in such exact alignment with the sea's horizon that the workmen on the top appear to be walking on water. This is not a cinematic trick – transparency is crucial to everything Wallinger makes – just a simple coincidence of different perspectives.

Space swithers between two and three dimensions, the men seem variously giants or midgets, the sea appears flat as a picture; and time becomes mysterious too. No sooner have they finished than the workmen return to dismantle the structure – unless, perhaps, it was the other way round? A palindrome emerges and repeats itself continually, like the tides, transforming boats and buckets into running gags forever.

Construction Site is a most original combination of contemplation piece and absurdist comedy. Every pun – verbal and visual – is deeply intended. Puns, palindromes, mirror images, anagrams and inversions: these are all pivotal to Wallinger's art, succinct devices for multiplying the nuances of meaning.

His work can be extraordinarily condensed, as in the colossal letter "I" adorning the outside of the Baltic on a banner. The simplest expression of the self, I says everything and nothing, describes everyone and no one. It amounts to a universal self-portrait (one sign fits all) while paradoxically denying the possibility of summing oneself up in an image or a word.

Inside, at the opposite extreme, a slideshow is flashing up photographs of the several thousand marks Wallinger has chalked on brick walls all over London in the past few years. "Mark", says the mark, speaking of its maker as well as itself, sending up the narcissism of tagging as well as the futility of trying to leave one's mark upon London. It is the pun simultaneously multiplied and reduced to the absurd.

It would be hard to overstate the subtlety of these two meditations on self-centredness, each stimulating new thoughts long after one leaves the gallery and both achieved with the simplest possible means. No sleight of hand; the separate elements of Wallinger's works are always exposed, one feels, as a matter of principle. That principle may be moral, aesthetic or intellectual but it is generally all three, as in the most powerful piece in this show.

Just outside the central gallery is a vertiginous stairwell that drops 13 landings, a plunge so abrupt you lose all sense of orientation. With the simple addition of a couple of mirrors, one above and one below, Wallinger extends this continuum to infinity. The bottomless hell below reflects the eternal heaven above, on and on in both directions. Which way is up? The viewer stares into this illusion, entirely aware of the mechanics, but overpowered by its vision of an endless fall and the impossible ascent to heaven.

A forest of iron helmets hangs upside down in the antechamber of Yoko Ono's Serpentine Gallery retrospective, conjuring the dead of two world wars. But in their upturned state, they are as reminiscent of cooking pots as dead soldiers; swords may still be beaten into ploughshares.

On either side two films are screening – an eye slowly blinking, a match gradually burning: pause, think, you might prevent disaster in a blink – and on the wall between them is Ono's famous Vietnam poster. "War Is Over" declares the faded headline; "If You Want It" whispers the tiny subtext. Hers may be a voice of perennial hope, but it is not without qualification.

This show breathes the true air of the 60s. It includes the early films of John and Yoko kissing, John breaking into an infectious slo-mo smile, Yoko suffering the clothes to be snipped from her body by strangers in Cut Piece. It has the glass labyrinth in which the wanderer becomes effectively blind and unable to find the way to the dark box at the centre, its hidden message as condensed as a haiku.

With its delicate calligraphy, translucent screens and fragile objects ceremonially presented on plinths, Ono's aesthetic appears strikingly Japanese. But her meanings are, of course, devoutly universal. For some, this will come across as sentimentality, as in her invitation to the public to smile on screen or leave a wish on a tree. But her sincerity is not in doubt.

Ono's gift is for the epigrammatic object or image; the blood-stained letter, the folded coat hanger doubling as forceps (death or birth), her footprints in step with John Lennon's on a sheet of paper, an overwhelming testimony of loss.

But most affecting of all is the remake of Cut Piece from 2003, when Ono was 70. The audience's reverence and obsession are now as much part of the performance as the artist's endurance. With every snip, they get closer to her fame while she remains resolutely dignified. The performance has turned into a life story.


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June 22 2012

This week's new exhibitions

Jenny Saville, Oxford

Jenny Saville's monumental paintings of flesh in the raw have made her one of Britain's best-known artists. Her women's engorged bellies, swollen breasts and thighs, shouting of anguished self-image in bloody gobs of pigment, have garnered her a public following to rival the approval heaped on her by critics. Although she emerged as an almost fully formed star when Saatchi first exhibited her work in the early 1990s, this is her first big public gallery show in her home country. It traces her development as a painter over the course of two decades, from the famed images of unruly, tormented but defiant female flesh, to recent works that see her striking out in fresh directions. New drawings have taken Leonardo's cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St Ann and St John the Baptist, for inspiration. In place of its vision of stoic motherhood, Saville's images are a hectic whirl of energy.

Modern Art Oxford and The Ashmolean Museum Of Art & Archeology, to 26 Sep

Skye Sherwin

Mark Wallinger, Gateshead

A film shows three builders erecting scaffolding on a beach. The camera frames the geometric structure set against the shingle and the background horizon. The builders' white T-shirts interweave with the metallic grey of steel rods that frame a grey-blue sea and sky. The Construction Site receives its UK premiere in this show of Wallinger's intriguing work. There's something about the way Wallinger composes apparent futilities with such systematic earnestness that is in itself convincing. Another classic here, titled 10000000000000000, is of exactly 65,536 (the decimal form of the title's binary number) stones on a chess grid, a reflection of a superperfect number.

BALTIC, to 14 Oct

Robert Clark

Diane Arbus, London

Whether photographing a giant or schoolgirls, Diane Arbus had a genius for revealing her subjects' outre side. The 32 photos here focus on modern tribes, exploring the idea that dressing up or getting into disguise can make you freer to be yourself. It's easy to see her portraits of celebrity lookalikes as an influence on an artist such as Gillian Wearing. There's plenty of strange glamour, from puckish, bare-chested youths in makeup to society dames with matching pillbox hats and elegantly held cigarettes. Arbus probes further, however. Her image of a blind couple, huddled in one another's arms and dwarfed by their bed, or Russian midgets in a sombre living room, speak of tribal tendencies as necessary armour in a tough world.

Timothy Taylor, W1, Tue to 17 Aug

SS

Stanya Kahn, Manchester

Stanya Kahn comes from Los Angeles and it shows. Her videos are all self-consciously faked, every emotion and thought acted up and played out. But you're reminded of the camera's ubiquitous presence; the costumes are tatty and the props throwaway. Kahn navigates this slapstick theatre of the absurd with consummate self-deprecating humour. In Lookin' Good, Feelin' Good she roams the streets dressed as a giant foam penis. For It's Cool, I'm Good she explores LA wrapped in bandages like an escaped hospital patient. In true LA style, the words Cool and Good are taken to mean the opposite of their conventional definitions.

Cornerhouse, to 16 Sep

RC

Madge Gill, London

Madge Gill is one of outsider art's most fascinating figures. A Victorian spiritualist, she began obsessively creating drawings guided by a spirit known as Myrninerest, whose "signature" was often seen in the corner. The repetitive intricacy of her work is tireless: dense squares, cross-hatching and swirling forms, from which spooky, feminine faces peer. Most of Gill's vast output rarely leaves its Newham archive; here Bow Arts redresses the balance with the first of a trio of 10-week shows at the Nunnery.

The Nunnery, E3, to 23 Aug

SS

Erwin Wurm, Liverpool

A grown man entertains himself in private by stuffing red and blue marker pens up each nostril. He grips two photo-film canisters in his clenched eye sockets and, as a finishing touch, his mouth is gagged by holding a stapler like some kind of robotic beak. If all this weren't loony enough, he takes a photograph of the whole grotesque affair and presents the image as a work of art. This is just one of Erwin Wurm's One Minute Sculptures, a series of photo-artwork-performances that he's been working on assiduously since the late 1990s. Other of the 18 works exhibited here show a prone figure half buried by a suitcase and another figure wearing a cardboard box as a regulation uniform. The surprising thing with Wurm is that such dada daftness doesn't look just tiresomely wacky, like so many drunken pranks. Delightfully, it's somehow very sophisticated cultural mischief.

Open Eye Gallery, to 2 Sep

RC

Andrew Kötting & Iain Sinclair, London

Legacy has become the Olympics buzzword, applied before the fact, as if you could reverse time, and projected on to the future. Psychogeographer writer Ian Sinclair and artist-filmmaker Andrew Kötting's latest project sends up the vacuous cultural commissions taking legacy's name in vain to bulldozer so-called wastelands rich with people's history. Exploring the lesser-celebrated side of Britain, last year they took to Blighty's waterways in a swan-shaped pedalo. Their pedal-powered odyssey from Hastings to Hackney is by turns tragi-comic and quietly radical, lit up by folk songs and locals' stories. The results can be seen now in an installation of film, photos and artefacts, to be released in movie form next month.

Dilston Grove, SE16, Wed to 29 Jul

SS


guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Exhibitionist: the week's art shows in pictures

From monumental flesh paintings in Oxford to portraits of celebrity lookalikes in London, find out what's happening in art around the country



Mark Wallinger interview

Turner prize-winner Mark Wallinger gives a tour of SITE, his largest UK show in more than a decade. He talks about his sea of 65,536 stones and playing noughts and crosses with scaffolders. Then he takes Adrian Searle out to graffiti Gateshead.



June 12 2012

Fantasy art school: artists reveal their dream teachers

As London's Hayward Gallery launches its month-long alternative art college, Wide Open School, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and others tell us who their dream teachers would be. Who would you like to be taught by?

This month, more than 100 artists from 40 countries are heading to London's Southbank to host workshops as part of the Hayward's alternative college of art, Wide Open School. Subjects in the timetable range from dining and singing sessions and sushi-making performance art classes to the Sundown Schoolhouse of Queer Home Economics, plus explorations of time and space, forensics and Freddie Mercury.

As the college swings open its doors, we ask a selection of artists who their dream teachers would be.

Tracey Emin

I would like to have been taught by Simone Weil, Daphne du Maurier and Louise Bourgeois. I think it would have made a wonderful trio of art, literature and philosophy – at school, that is all I needed to be taught.

Tracey Emin will be in conversation with Jeanette Winterson on 26 June.

Michael Landy

I was never taught cricket at school and I've never played it, but I do listen to it on the radio. So I would nominate Geoffrey Boycott, ex-Yorkshire and England cricketer, to teach me the basics about batting and bowling. He would tell me to keep my eye on the ball, and to move either forwards or backwards depending on where the ball pitched, and to keep my head still. We would discuss the finer points of the "corridor of uncertainty" and when I played a bad shot, he would tell me that his mum could have done better than me.

Michael Landy is running a workshop on destruction

Bob and Roberta Smith

I wish I'd been taught by Theodor W Adorno and Walter Benjamin, and at primary school by Michael Rosen, who could have warned me about the dangers of too much entertainment on the 1970s TV programme Play Away.

Bob and Roberta Smith is creating a symphony for the public realm.

Marlene Dumas

Joseph Beuys, because of his postcards with Klaus Staeck and his smile!

An evening with Marlene Dumas takes place on 5 July.

Antony Gormley

David Bohm, the inspirational physicist who developed the implications of Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity. He could have involved me in the participatory activity of holomovement in his understanding of the implicate order of phenomena.

Antony Gormley will be talking to critic and writer Michael Newman about time in art.

Jane and Louise Wilson

We have a great admiration for the teaching profession: it would be difficult to find any other profession with as many valuable, dedicated and creative thinkers who, despite the lack of government support, continue to brilliantly inspire future generations. We attended the same comprehensive school in the 1980s and although they no longer exist any more, reflecting back to that time we would find it really hard to agree upon only one artist we would have both liked to have been taught by. Essentially, there are too many. It would have been fascinating to attend a talk by Professor Mary E King about her book The Power of Nonviolent Action (1988). The book is timely on so many levels despite being written before the collapse of the former Soviet Union. It describes the successful use of non-violent strategies to bring about political change, from the pro-democracy movements in the former Soviet Union to the present-day pro-democracy movements in the Middle East.

Jane and Louise Wilson will be in conversation with Caroline Wilkinson on 13 June.

Thomas Hirschhorn

Joseph Beuys, because he accepted everybody in his class – and would accept me. And because he asserted that every human being is an artist, because he included everyone in his work, because he never "made school" in the sense of creating followers, because his teaching was part of his artistic mission, because of his decisions about his materials, because of his work in public space, because he understood art as something which needs to confront social, economical and political issues. And because he makes me love art.

Thomas Hirschhorn is running a class called Energy: Yes! Quality: No! on 3 July.

Mark Wallinger

Great teachers are those that have such a revelatory impact on their students that it might shape their future destiny. Keats's sonnet, On first looking into Chapman's Homer, expresses his passion for poetry by using imagery of exploration and discovery, which never fails to thrill me. And how exciting would it have been to witness Filippo Brunelleschi demonstrating linear perspective for the first time in his baptistry in Florence. But above all, I wish I could resurrect my junior school teacher Mr Holland, even if he might recognise his idea for parent's open day in my upcoming show at Baltic in Gateshead

Martin Creed

I don't believe in teaching. I think people learn things. Nobody teaches them.

Who is your dream teacher?

Tell us by posting a comment below


guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


September 29 2011

Mark Wallinger: ponies, politics and a police box

The work of the Turner prize-winning artist is the subject of an iconic new book. Here are some highlights



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